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Pilot’s Logbook: Blake Wheeler

The Winnipeg Jets’ 2016-2017 disappointing season finally ended. While the extent of disappointment may be subjective from individual-to-individual dependent on expectations, fans without a single franchise playoff win prefer their seasons to carry some post-season excitement.

So, what went wrong? What went well? How do the Jets measure up against their competition? Which areas actually require improvement relative to others?

If your car breaks down, you need to know what is wrong with it prior to dropping cash to fix it. With that in mind, we continue our in-depth investigation on the Jets’ performance breaking down the team player-by-player from worst-to-best according to statistical impact, with some adjustments made by my own, personal analysis.

Our last player: Blake Wheeler

Basic Statistics

GP G A P +/- PIM PPG PPP SHG SHP GWG OTG S S%
82 26 48 74 +6 47 5 21 2 3 4 0 259 10.0

Blake Wheeler put up his second season with over 70 points, and third season pacing 70 points. Wheeler pretty much does it all. He garners the team value in even strength scoring, power play scoring, short handed scoring, shot volume, and being consistently healthy for 79+ games a season.

There’s not much you can say for weaknesses as Wheeler just does well everywhere.

Goals Above Replacement

Goals Above Replacement data courtesy of @DTMAboutHeart. Reminder that GAR is an aggregate statistic, so it is not relative to games played or ice time.

Goals Above Replacement (GAR) combines multiple statistics in terms of one currency, allowing one to estimate a player’s overall impact. It is imperfect, as it combines many imperfect statistics, but it is also a severely useful tool.

The GAR model likes Wheeler, a lot. Wheeler produced the fourth highest goals above replacement in the NHL for forwards, and highest for wingers. He moves up to second highest overall when looking only for even strength value. While Wheeler predominately draws value through offense at even strength and power play, he still sits in the top 30 for defensive value and is an exceptional penalty killer.

The only area where Wheeler could really improve upon is with the number of penalties he draws, which in reality is rare or maybe even impossible to excel at for a skater of his size (there’s a lot of size bias in penalties).

Advanced Metrics

TOI CF% REL CF% G60 A60 P60
1189 54.3 +9.89 0.76 1.11 1.87

The graphic is hilarious. Of the 16 players to skate with Wheeler, all of them performed below 50 per cent in shot share when they played without Wheeler. The relative extent of their performance away varied substantially, but you get the idea that Wheeler was the biggest driver in shot differentials on the team. He was weakest away from Perreault, but even then he was still around 52-53 per cent in shot share.

The Jets shot share improved by nearly 10 percentage points with Wheeler on the ice versus while he was on the bench. To give you some context on the sheer magnitude of this jump, the general spread of the entire NHL is about 15-to-20 percentage points… while most teams are grouped highly together between a 5 percentage point spread.

Like Perreault, Wheeler’s 5v5 production fell uncharacteristically below his historical norm. Wheeler dropped below the 2 point per hour pace average for first-line forwards for only the second time in his career. Like Perreault, his point pace was still well above the 1.75 point per game pace, although Wheeler made up for this drop through special teams production and eating massive amounts of overall minutes (his 1651 minutes was the fifth highest in the NHL).

Microstatistics

Visual is for minutes played in 2015-16 and first half of 2016-17 combined.

Like we said, Wheeler does everything well. He’s a very complete player. He has no real strengths or weaknesses. He likes to shoot and pass, and especially likes to be directly involved in offense with large volume in dangerous shots and primary shot-assists.

Wheeler did not drive the zonal entry volume or efficiency of Nikolaj Ehlers or Mark Scheifele, but he was darn well close. He was also up there with Scheifele, Ehlers, and Perreault in successful passes post entry, that have been shown to exponentially drive shooting percentage from shots off zone entries.

It’s zone exits where Wheeler really thrives, and likely drives a lot of both his defensive value and offensive value. Wheeler led the Jets with 85 per cent of his defensive zone possessions leading to successful exits. He was a bit below team average in terms of exits being with possession of the puck, however.

Please support Corey Sznajder (@ShutDownLine) for his contributions in manually tracking microstatistics. He has a Patreon page where you can make a donation for his tireless work supporting the community. Also, give Ryan Stimson (@RK_Stimp) a follow.

Final Thoughts

Wheeler is a pretty good player, in fact, he is most likely the Jets best player and one of the highest performing wingers in the entire NHL (if not the highest).

He does everything exceptionally well. He scores, he hits, he defends, he drives play, he forechecks, he kills penalties, he produces on the power play, and he leads the team as the captain. There is no real weakness for Wheeler, just areas he’s less exceptional at. He’s also signed for two more seasons.

I pointed previously that Perreault is a dominant winger due to being really good at about everything. Wheeler is just a bigger, tougher, healthier Perreault that is marginally better at most everything.

The only real issue for the Jets is that Wheeler will be 32 for the 2017-2018 season. While health, fitness, genetics, and injuries will dictate how soon he will decline, it is only a matter of when. The good news for the Jets is that they already have three very young wingers with exceptional upside in Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers, and Kyle Connor.

I do not expect any or all of these wingers to develop into the league’s best, all-minutes, two-way winger like Wheeler. There is a chance for Laine to be just as good, if not better, but he will probably drive results in a different manner. However, they do give the Jets the safety net in that their value as they develop should make up for Wheeler’s decline (and then some). Will they make up for the decline in both Wheeler and Perreault remains to be the real question, although I believe both have still a good number of solid years left.

This is not as certain in any other area for the Jets.

At centre, the Jets have Bryan Little who is not as strong as Wheeler and only Scheifele has proven to be a bonafide top-six centre. There is Jack Roslovic, Nic Petan, Adam Lowry, and Andrew Copp, but I’m uncertain their development will out perform Little’s decline.

At left defense, the Jets have Josh Morrissey edging towards becoming a bonafide #2 defender, but Toby Enstrom has already begun his decline. Logan Stanley and Sami Niku offer varying levels of intrigue, but again I’m uncertain their development will out perform Enstrom’s decline, and they may be too far out. I question Stanley’s upside while Niku has upside but a lot of uncertainty.

The closest may be at right defense, although it has many question marks. Trouba has grown into an elite #1 defender. Tyler Myers is a suitable #4 but his health is a major concern. Dustin Byfuglin historically performs as a fringe #1 defender, although he slipped last season into a more #3 type performer (likely in part to overuse due to Jets injuries). Myers has already been declining over the past few years, and we should be seeing Byfuglien decline, if he not already has. The Jets have Luke Green and Tucker Poolman, but again Green caries a lot of uncertainty and Poolman is a tough player to really project with his tendency to play leagues older than the norm of top NHL prospects.

With Wheeler, Perreault, Laine, Ehlers, and Connor, the Jets have exceptional wingers, both in the now and for the future. Their best player is a winger, and may still be next season (although Mark Scheifele has been on a real uprise). Their highest potential future player is also a winger: Laine.

Overall, the Jets are set in wing, both for the short and long term.

All numbers courtesy of @NaturalStatTrick, @ShutdownLine, or @DTMAboutHeart unless otherwise noted. Please follow them all.


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